The Serpent's Shadow / Page 35

Page 35


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Neith’s eyes widened. “They are dangerous?”

“Horrible,” I agreed. “Oh, they seem small alone, but they always appear in great numbers. Sticky, fattening—quite deadly. There I was, alone with only two quid and a Tube pass, beset by Jelly Babies, when…Ah, but never mind. When the Jelly Babies come for you…you will find out on your own.”

She lowered her bow. “Tell me. I must know how to hunt Jelly Babies.”

I looked at Walt gravely. “How many months have I trained you, Walt?”

“Seven,” he said. “Almost eight.”

“And have I ever deemed you worthy of hunting Jelly Babies with me?”

“Uh…no.”

“There you have it!” I knelt and began tracing on the rampart floor with my wand. “Even Walt is not ready for such knowledge. I could draw for you here a picture of the dreaded Jelly Baby, or even—gods forbid!—the Jacob’s Digestive Cream. But that knowledge might destroy a lesser hunter.”

“I am the goddess of hunting!” Neith inched closer, staring in awe at the glowing markings—apparently not realizing I was making protective hieroglyphs. “I must know.”

“Well…” I glanced at the horizon. “First, you must understand the importance of timing.”

“Yes!” Neith said eagerly. “Tell me of this.”

“For instance…” I tapped the hieroglyphs and activated my spell. “It’s sunset. We’re still alive. We win.”

Neith’s expression hardened. “Trickery!”

She lunged at me, but the protective glyphs flared, pushing back the goddess. She raised her bow and shot her arrows.

What happened next was surprising on many levels. First, the arrows must have been heavily enchanted, because they sailed right through my defenses. Second, Walt lunged forward with impossible speed. Faster than I could scream (which I did), Walt snatched the arrows out of the air. They crumbled to gray dust, scattering in the wind.

Neith stepped back in horror. “It’s you. This is unfair!”

“We won,” Walt said. “Honor your agreement.”

A look passed between them that I didn’t quite understand—some sort of contest of wills.

Neith hissed through clenched teeth. “Very well. You may go. When Apophis rises, I will fight at your side. But I will not forget how you trespassed on my territory, child of Set. And you—”

She glared at me. “I lay this hunter’s curse upon you: someday you will be tricked by your prey as I have been tricked today. May you be set upon by a pack of wild Jelly Babies!”

With that terrifying threat, Neith dissolved into a pile of twine.

“Child of Set?” I narrowed my eyes at Walt. “What exactly—?”

“Look out!” he warned. All around us, the temple began to crumble. The air rippled as the magic shockwave contracted, transforming the landscape back to present-day Egypt.

We barely made it to the base of the stairs. The last walls of the temple were reduced to a pile of worn mud bricks, but the shadow of Bes was still visible against them, slowly fading as the sun went down.

“We need to hurry,” Walt said.

“Yes, but how do we capture it?”

Behind us, someone cleared his throat.

Anubis leaned against a nearby palm tree, his expression grim. “I’m sorry to intrude. But, Walt…it’s time.”

Anubis was sporting the formal Egyptian look. He wore a golden neck collar, a black kilt, sandals, and pretty much nothing else. As I’ve mentioned before, not many boys could pull off this look, especially with kohl eyeliner, but Anubis managed.

Suddenly his expression turned to alarm. He sprinted toward us. For a moment I had an absurd vision of myself on the cover of one of Gran’s old romance novels, where the damsel wilts into the arms of one half-dressed beefy guy while another stands by, casting her longing looks. Oh, the horrible choices a girl must make! I wished I’d had a moment to clean up. I was still covered in dried river muck, twine, and grass, like I’d been tarred and feathered.

Then Anubis pushed past me and gripped Walt’s shoulders. Well…that was unexpected.

I quickly realized, however, that he’d stopped Walt from collapsing. Walt’s face was beaded with sweat. His head drooped, and his knees gave out as if someone had cut the last string holding him together. Anubis lowered him gently to the ground.

“Walt, stay with me,” Anubis urged. “We have business to finish.”

“Business to finish?” I cried. I’m not sure what came over me, but I felt as if I’d just been Photoshopped out of my own book cover. And if there was one thing I wasn’t used to, it was being ignored. “Anubis, what are you doing here? What is going on with you two? And what bloody business?”

Anubis frowned at me, as if he’d forgot my presence. That didn’t do much to help my mood. “Sadie—”

“I tried to tell her,” Walt groaned. Anubis helped him sit up, though Walt still looked awful.

“I see,” Anubis said. “Couldn’t get a word in edgewise, I guess?”

Walt managed a weak smile. “You should’ve seen her talking to Neith about Jelly Babies. She was like…I don’t know, a verbal freight train. The goddess never stood a chance.”

“Yes, I saw,” Anubis said. “It was endearing, in an annoying sort of way.”

“I beg your pardon?” I wasn’t sure which of them to slap first.

“And when she turns red like that,” Anubis added, as if I were some interesting specimen.

“Cute,” Walt agreed.

“So have you decided?” Anubis asked him. “This is our last chance.”

“Yes. I can’t leave her.”

Anubis nodded and squeezed his shoulder. “Neither can I. But the shadow, first?”

Walt coughed, his face contorting in pain. “Yes. Before it’s too late.”

I can’t pretend I was thinking clearly, but one thing was obvious: these two had been talking behind my back much more than I’d realized. What on earth had they been telling each other about me? Forget Apophis swallowing the sun—this was my ultimate nightmare.

How could they both not leave me? Hearing that from a dying boy and a god of death sounded quite ominous. They’d formed some sort of conspiracy.…

Oh, lord. I was beginning to think like Neith. Soon I’d be huddled in an underground bunker eating army rations and cackling as I sewed together the pockets of all the boys who’d jilted me.

With difficulty, Anubis helped Walt over to the shadow of Bes, now rapidly disappearing in the twilight.

“Can you do it?” Anubis asked.

Walt murmured something I couldn’t make out. His hands were shaking, but he pulled a block of wax from his bag and began kneading it into a shabti. “Setne tried to make it sound so complicated, but I see now. It’s simple. No wonder the gods wanted this knowledge kept out of mortal hands.”

“Excuse me,” I interrupted.

They both looked at me.

“Hi, I’m Sadie Kane,” I said. “I don’t mean to barge in on your chummy conversation, but what in blazes are you doing?”

“Capturing Bes’s shadow,” Anubis told me.

“But…” I couldn’t seem to make words come out. So much for being a verbal freight train. I’d become a verbal train wreck. “But if that’s the business you were talking about, then what was all that about deciding, and leaving me, and—”

“Sadie,” Walt said, “we’re going to lose the shadow if I don’t act now. You need to watch the spell, so you can do this with the shadow of the serpent.”

“You are not going to die, Walt Stone. I forbid it.”

“It’s a simple incantation,” he continued, quite ignoring my plea. “A regular summons, with the words shadow of Bes substituted for Bes. After the shadow is absorbed, you’ll need a binding spell to anchor it. Then—”

“Walt, stop it!”

He was shivering so badly, his teeth chattered. How could he think about giving me a magic lesson now?

“—then for the execration,” he said, “you’ll need to be in front of Apophis. The ritual is exactly the same as normal. Setne lied about that part—there’s nothing special about his enchantment. The only hard part is finding the shadow. For Bes, just reverse the spell. You should be able to cast it from a distance, since it’s a beneficial spell. The shadow will want to help you. Send out the sheut to find Bes, and it should…should bring him back.”

“But—”

“Sadie.” Anubis put his arms around me. His brown eyes were full of compassion. “Don’t make him talk more than he has to. He needs his strength for this spell.”

Walt began to chant. He raised the lump of wax, which now resembled a miniature Bes, and pressed it against the shadow on the wall.

I sobbed. “But he’ll die!”

Anubis held me. He smelled of temple incense—copal and amber and other ancient fragrances.

“He was born under the shadow of death,” Anubis said. “That’s why we understand each other. He would’ve collapsed long before now, but Jaz gave him one last potion to hold off the pain—to give him a final burst of energy in an emergency.”

I remembered the sweet smell of lotus on Walt’s breath. “He took it just now. When we were running from Neith.”

Anubis nodded. “It’s worn off. He’ll only have enough energy to finish this spell.”

“No!” I meant to scream and hit him, but I’m afraid I rather melted and wept instead. Anubis sheltered me in his arms, and I sniveled like a little girl.

I have no excuse. I simply couldn’t stand the thought of losing Walt, even to bring back Bes. Just once, couldn’t I succeed at something without a massive sacrifice?

“You have to watch,” Anubis told me. “Learn the spell. It’s the only way to save Bes. And you’ll need the same enchantment to capture the serpent’s shadow.”

“I don’t care!” I cried, but I did watch.

As Walt chanted, the figurine absorbed the shadow of Bes like a sponge soaking up liquid. The wax turned as black as kohl.

“Don’t worry,” Anubis said gently. “Death won’t be the end for him.”

I pounded on his chest without much force. “I don’t want to hear that! You shouldn’t even be here. Didn’t the gods put a restraining order on you?”

“I’m not supposed to be near you,” Anubis agreed, “because I have no mortal form.”

“How, then? There’s no graveyard. This isn’t your temple.”

“No,” Anubis admitted. He nodded at Walt. “Look.”

Walt finished his spell. He spoke a single command word: “Hi-nehm.”

The hieroglyph for Join together blazed silver against the dark wax:

It was the same command I’d used to repair the gift shop in Dallas, the same command Uncle Amos had used last Christmas when he had demonstrated how to put a broken saucer back together. And with horrible certainty, I knew it would be the last spell Walt ever cast.


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